Background Scripture: Genesis 45:3-11
Quotes of the Week:
Some carry the burden of bitterness and resentfulness for many years.
Joseph B. Wirthlin
Bitterness can defined as in a bitter or harsh taste, something hard to bear (a bitter defeat), causing pain (a bitter chill) and in many other ways. For the sake of this lesson, let's focus on the bitterness that impacts us individually. A better definition might be "characterized by intense antagonism or hostility (as in a bitter hatred)". Given that definition, is there anybody that really wants to be bitter? Some seem to revel in being a martyr of sorts, but even they likely do not want to be bitter. Is there anyone that truly wants to hate another person? Unfortunately, it happens. Through series of events in life, especially when expectations that we have are not met, the natural tendency is to become bitter and unforgiving, which will undoubtedly lead to hatred.
What causes people to become bitter? Bitterness may be defined as unforgiveness fermented. Holding onto past hurts can rob any of us of joy in many parts of life. There is not a single one of us that will go through life without getting hurt in one manner or another. Even when people don't seem to react to hurts in life, we all will experience it. When we dwell on that hurt, it will impact us even more.
As we study this lesson, rather than focusing on ourselves, we may be thinking of other people that are bitter, and we hope that lessons like this will speak to them. However, when we read the Bible and study it, the primary recipient of the teaching is to be us. So, as you consider this lesson, ask yourself if you have allowed yourself to become bitter, and if so, what should you do with that bitterness?
The lesson continues in the life of Joseph. You can read earlier lessons on this site (or the story in Genesis) to find the background, but at this point, Joseph has been elevated to a high position in Egypt. He had interpreted the dream of the Pharaoh, in which the seven years of abundance followed by seven years of severe famine were seen. As this passage picks up, the seven years of abundance had come to an end, and the seven years of famine had begun. Joseph had led a massive effort to store food and other resources in the time of abundance, so that when the famine came, Egypt would have food. The famine greatly impacted all the other lands, and when people cried out for food, their only relief was to go to Egypt. The entire world came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph.
Jacob, Joseph's father (who was told that Joseph was dead), knew that Egypt had food and that his family was in need. He sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy supplies, leaving Benjamin (his youngest and now his favorite son) behind with himself. When they made their way to Egypt, Joseph recognized his brothers, but they didn't recognize him. He spoke the Egyptian language, but he could understand their Hebrew tongue. There wasn't any way that they would think this could be Joseph. They didn't know for sure whether he was dead or alive, but they did know that he had been sold into slavery, so there was no expectation of running into him again, especially not in this position.
When Joseph saw them, he thought back to his dreams and how it had upset his family when he had shared those dreams with them. In one of his dreams, his brothers were all binding sheaves of grain in the field, but Joseph's sheaf rose and stood upright, while the sheaves of his brothers gathered around his sheaf and bowed down to it. You would have to think that the meaning of that dream was beginning to make more sense at this point. Joseph spent more time with his brothers by accusing them of being spies, putting them in custody for three days, and getting them to tell him more about their family situation. Joseph could hear his brothers talking among themselves, saying that they were being punished because of what they had done to their brother. Joseph instructed them to bring the youngest brother back to Egypt. He had one of them stay in Egyptian custody, allowing the others to take grain back to their father.
The brothers returned, but Jacob was unwilling to send Benjamin, his favored son, back to Egypt. However, as the famine got worse rather than better, Jacob, though distraught, eventually let Benjamin go back with his brothers. Jacob didn't really see how he had any choice. Judah, one of Jacob's sons, took a pledge to say that he was responsible for the safety of Benjamin. The brothers were sent back to Egypt with double the amount of silver required and other gifts.
When all of the brothers were in Egypt, Joseph ordered that a meal be given to them. Without sharing their birth order with Joseph or anyone else, they were seated in order, from oldest to youngest. This had to raise some concern among the brothers. If you were them, what would you think? Was this coincidence? As the brothers were preparing to leave, Joseph had a silver cup put in Benjamin's bag and as they were leaving, he had the brothers seized, saying the cup had been stolen. Can you imagine how the brothers felt at this point? Their situation was tense, and had become unbearable. It kept getting worse and worse.
Can you imagine what must have been going through their minds? Oh, no! To begin with, they had no idea that this was Joseph, but in finding out that he was the one in charge, they must have been terrified. If you were them, what do you think you would have immediately thought of? Perhaps you would be comparing Joseph's face you saw right then with his face as he was being carried away into Ishmaelite slavery. Can you imagine the overwhelming sense of guilt that must have come across them? Maybe they were thinking about the dreams that he had shared, which now made sense.
If you were Joseph, what would you be thinking? Would you think back to the way you had been treated for so many years and now take advantage of the situation, since you so clearly now had the upper hand? These reunions are always emotionally charged. Surely you could imagine this going multiple ways.
Wow. Can you imagine being sold into slavery and then have an opportunity to punish those who did it? What if you were allowed to control the situation for those who had treated you the worst in your life? Right at this point in time (whenever you read this), you likely know of people who have been mistreated and are bitter. You probably know of others whose bitterness has caused them to do more and more to 'get back', which only serves to make the situation worse. Joseph could have made the lives of his brothers very bad.
Joseph could choose to forgive his brothers, seeing how God had been using his situation. There seems to be a misunderstanding of forgiveness among many people. They may say over and over that they have forgiven someone, yet their very actions belie that fact. Perhaps they want the other party to suffer sufficiently, or to make some change in their lives or something else.
Our growth group looked at Ephesians 4:32 this week, which states, in part, "forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." As we consider our own lives, this verse should jump out at us as believers and question any unforgiveness that exists in our lives. When you think of "Just as God in Christ has forgiven me", how have you been forgiven? Completely. How do we forgive others? Usually only conditionally. What if this verse was changed slightly by saying "forgiven in Christ by God, just as you forgive others?" Having a lack of forgiveness in our lives not only calls into question our own forgiveness, but it will definitely lead to bitterness.
We need to understand that forgiveness is not saying that all is well and allowing someone to continually trample all over us again and again. Sometimes, we must put boundaries in our lives for protection, or to just keep the antagonistic bullets from hitting us. Even in those times, we can forgive and perhaps Romans 12:18 comes into play, which says "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" One thing that you will learn is that you can't control others, and while they may still lash out and act ignorant, you have a choice. Perhaps some type of action needs to be taken against the other party, or you feel led that the best defense is to simply walk away. "living in peace" can look like a lot of things, but what it doesn't look like is cowing to manipulations set out by other people. If you find yourself being the one to say, "If you love me you will_______" you are being manipulative and if the other person finally draws some boundaries and refuses to interact with you, on those grounds, it is they who have chosen to live in peace….as much as it is up to them. Peace does not mean there is no conflict in a situation - sometimes conflict resolution is necessary to gain genuine peace. Again, you can't control the other person, you can only control how you act and respond, and that is all you will be held accountable for.
Joseph had the luxury of clearly seeing God's hand at work in his life. One of the enablers was his ability to get past the past and to maintain a godly attitude as he went forward. Joseph also recognized that he was in a position to provide for the needs of others, during the famine. A side point that comes out is that anyone that was in need had to take steps to be provided for, instead of waiting for someone to swoop in and take care of their every need. Had they held on to their bitterness and associated attitudes, surely the outcome of this story would have been much different. Isn't it amazing that some want to treat others with contempt and then get upset that they are not provided for?
Of course, we must realize that the brothers did not maintain their antagonistic attitude when they encountered Joseph in Egypt. They expressed sorrow for what they had done, and knew that they could very well have been punished.
As we write this lesson, it occurs to us that we all like to think that we are the "Joseph" in this story and our adversary is the brothers. The truth is that there is a bit of the brothers in all of us, in that we have at one time or another treated those around us wrongly. There is none of us that can look back in our lives and say that we have always done the right thing. None of us escape this life without hurting somebody in one way or another. There is also the truth that there is a bit of "Joseph" in us, treated wrongly by others. It is a difficult situation in deciding who is who in this story, when it comes to our own lives.
It matters less about whether you think you are playing the part of Joseph or the brothers. We all have the opportunity and choice to put differences aside and live peacefully with one another. Are you hanging onto something from your past? Have you found that the seeds of bitterness have been sown in your life, and that you have effectively watered the bitter plant each day? What will it take for you to put bitterness aside? Forgive one another. There are some that have estranged themselves from others, without even giving an opportunity to express (or grant) forgiveness. It's as if one person got mad and hurt and rather than do the hard work of 'working things out', they made demands and when those weren't done to their satisfaction, they cut that person from their lives. No explanation, no nothing. They just stop taking the other person's calls or other attempts to communicate and go on with their lives as if the other person is dead or were never born. That may seem ok way at the time, but that kind of behavior will come back to haunt them. We can't just push people from our lives without some sense of closure. It will be a wound that remains open and over the course of time it starts to infect our whole body and can wreak more havoc unattended to, than if the situation were just dealt with at the time it all began. Denial is not an aspect of healthy conflict resolution.
Finally, our lives are not as long as we might hope for them to be. What are you hanging on to in your life, and what do you need to do with it? If you can't find it in yourself to do what you need to do, find a counselor and ask for help. You may feel as if the famine in your life is in full swing, but we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves if there is something, anything, that we can do. No one wants to live with regret, and the worst kind of regret is when you stand over someone's grave and realize that whatever it was that kept you apart, really didn't matter in the big picture, and now it's too late. They are gone and you are left with all the things you could have said, all the time you could have spent together, if only you had put your pride away. Don't live your life on the other side of the 'if only'. Take the steps necessary today to mend that broken relationship or at least find some healthy closure for it.